This was originally drafted as a Thursday Thirteen, but it grew to an epic length and you can’t really use the more link in the TT table. So I’ll use it today in lieu of babbling. (Okay, it’s still babbling, but at least it’s writing related.)
(Note: For those who don’t know, RWA Idol is like American Idol: Lucia Macro was Paula, Miriam Kriss was Randy and Irene Goodman was Simon. A volunteer read the openings of manuscripts and the judges cut them off when they didn’t want/need to hear more. Comments were made.) (Another note: The multiple listenings were spread out over months, not back-to-back, and probably not 13 times. I multitasked some of the list items.)
So, the reasons why I’ve nearly worn out the disc with RWA Idol on it:
1. The first time I listened, I didn’t make it through the entire thing. The comments seemed delivered with a near gleeful cruelty that almost put Simon to shame. Hearing other writers being mocked by industry heavy-hitters wasn’t my idea of a good time.
2. I decided to listen to it again because those three ladies know what they’re talking about. And writing isn’t for sissies. I made it through, but I only listened without taking notes.
3. I focused on points leading to an almost immediate “no”: France, South America, 1848 America, opening in the killer’s head, etc. Things that would require a book to be exceptional to get even a cursory look.
4. I listened again, mining it for those little tidbits about editors/agents. For example: Lucia Macro prefers the hero not have parents. To very loosely paraphrase, she wants them to be the Alpha dog—to already have the land, title or power. That goes into the mental database alongside bits like Abby Zidle not caring for children in romance and such.
5. I listened for openings receiving a “here we go again” tone of voice: secret agents, pressure to marry, reincarnated lovers, etc. Again, things that would have to be exceptional to stand out.
6. I noted the scenes opening with character development were met with “Fine, but what are they doing?” while action-packed openings were met with “But who are these people and why should I care about them?”. There is, apparently, an indefinable happy medium we have to find.
7. I focused on how the volunteer reader’s inflection and intonation effected the scenes, being reminded that a reader will not read a passage in the same voice it was written in. The scenes with a strong voice and exacting word choice fared the best. (I also noted that, though she was game, the reader understandably tired toward the end and the stumbling and hesitation had to have had an effect on the judges’ connection with the work. Common sense says they should have several volunteers rotating manuscripts.)
8. I paid special attention to those scenes I liked, only to be surprised when they were harshly criticized. If they were doing something wrong I couldn’t identify, there’s a good chance I could be doing it wrong, too.
9. I listened to each entry, noting where the judges cut the reader off. Outside of larger issues, many either failed to gain their interest or gained it only to slip too soon into backstory or description. Chances are the point at which they stopped the reader is the point at which they’d stop reading back at the office, and…it wasn’t much. It was a good reminder that after obsessively crafting an opening that grabs the reader by the throat, it’s important to keep squeezing.
10. I went through and noticed all the situations receiving a “that’s not sexy”: France (poor France), beefcake slathered in baby oil, hero in a dress, etc.
11. I listened for phrasing they mocked hard: tresses, ripe breasts, melodramatic dialogue, etc.
12. I focused on the manuscripts for which a partial was requested, and…voice trumps all.
13. Mostly I’ve listened to it over and over because, no matter how much it may hurt, there is always something to be learned from criticism, even if it’s not aimed at your work. And when three well-respected industry professional talk, I listen. I may not—and did not—agree with everything said, but knowing what to personally disagree with and why is a part of the learning curve, too.
I find editor and agent reaction to cold reads especially enlightening. Leslie Wainger did a similar session with synopses several years ago and I’ve almost worn out that tape. Hearing what goes on in their minds as they read submissions is invaluable.
And thank you to those brave, anonymous souls who submit their work to these workshops, because it makes those who listen better writers.